Society for Renaissance Studies Conference, 2014, by Rachel White

Society for Renaissance Studies Biennial Conference

University of Southampton, July 2014

July saw the Society for Renaissance Studies 6th biennial conference, which was held at the University of Southampton. With the theme of ‘Performative Spaces’, the conference saw a range of papers and scholars on topics including literature, modern day performance, language, social history, music and sewing. It was a conference which I thoroughly enjoyed and here follows a brief overview of some the papers I attended and thoughts they provoked.

The first panel I attended was on religion and performativity. Both papers considered non-conformity, with Alison Searle looking at non-conformists within communities and prisons, and an interesting insight into the life of a non-conformist wife via her journal; and David Walker continued with a paper on John Bunyan and how he turned his own prison space into an evangelising performative space. The second panel on the arts of writing featured papers by Robert Stagg, who looked at the use of the epic caesura and how it can offer a performance space in itself, and Vladimir Birljak who examined Kenelm Digby’s unpublished essay on poetic theory and thus opened questions as to how changing schemes of human knowledge such as natural philosophy influenced poetics.

The papers for the day were concluded by the first plenary by Lena Cowen Orlin who presented a paper entitled ‘The Widow’s Chamber’ and took us through the changing attitudes during the period towards private and public spaces in the home and developments in the architecture of living spaces. By juxtaposing this with contemporary wills and probate, she was able to build up a picture of the physical environment of early modern widows and the implications this held for their subsequent social status and lifestyle. That evening we were treated to a performance of Cut Down Comus by Theatre of the Ayre, originally by John Milton and Henry and William Lawes. It was a truly stunning performance with very talented actors and musicians, and I feel that the spellbinding voice of soprano Rosanna Wicks is worth a particular mention. The evening’s entertainment was rounded off with the conference dinner at Ceno, judging from the liveliness of the room it seemed like everyone was enjoying themselves (although that may have been the wine!)

Early next morning, I attended a panel on performance and publication histories which began with Peter Mack’s paper on sixteenth-century publications of Quintilian and how this influenced ideas towards rhetoric. Maedhdh O’Halloran followed with an interactive presentation on Marlowe’s subversive use of mediaeval texts and discussed the access he may have had to various libraries such as the Parker Library. Louise Rayment then followed with a paper on a performance within the parish church of St Mary-at-Hill, London, and used churchwarden records to give a sense of the role of music and choir schools prior to the reformation.   I then attended panels considering more specifically types of performance and performance space, beginning with Lucinda Dean’s paper on the use of outdoor spaces and architecture as scenery in Scottish performative spaces. Emma Kennedy followed with a discussion of the representation of the investiture of the princes of Wales by Thomas Middleton and Anthony Munday, and the role of the city and courtly spaces in each of their texts, and what this suggests about the types of spectacle presented according to the readership. Claire Canavan’s paper on early modern needlework and acts of reading was an insightful view of the role of embroidery in reading. With the aid of some fantastic pictures, she demonstrated how embroidery and additions to the text such as ribbons were an integral part of the early modern reading experience. Moving on to performance-as-research, Ellie Rycroft presented on the experiences of staging John Heywood’s The Play of the Weather in Hampton Court and David Lyndsay’s Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis by the palace of Linlithgow, and Oliver Jones talked about performance-as-research at Stratford-Upon-Avon. Both papers showed the possibilities of different research techniques whilst also discussing the limitations of trying to recreate the performance of a particular historical moment. Sarah Dustagheer followed with a discussion of theatrical intimacy and the proximity of actor and audience, and looked at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse for how this is replicates early modern playing spaces such as Blackfriars. These three papers invited thoughts on the early modern experience of performance in terms of space, which is something that is clearly difficult to recreate but proves to be very insightful too.  Simon Thurley’s plenary on architecture and liturgy in English royal palaces also raised issues surrounding the places in which religious performances took place, and the impact of the architectural surroundings on these events.

The final day of the conference began with a panel on staging the supernatural, which opened with Carole Levin’s paper on The Merchant of Venice and the significance of the turquoise ring in relation to the cultural belief in the efficacy of the turquoise stone. Debbie Lea continued with a paper which looked towards seventeenth-century dramatizations of witches such as The Late Lancashire Witches as commentaries upon the political and social issues of the day, which coincided with my own paper in which I focussed on the mock-trial of a sorcerer during the Gray’s Inn Christmas revels of 1594, and how the outcome of this trial could be seen in terms of the context of the real Elizabethan state.

The publishing panel was a very useful addition to the programme, particularly for doctoral students like myself. I think that many doctoral students feel overwhelmed by the thought of their first publications, but the discussion this panel provoked and the sharing of personal experiences was very helpful. It was great to hear some frank and honest truths about the publishing process, as well as receiving sound advice on where to publish from academic to trade publications, and how to go about submitting a piece for publication. Greg Walker’s closing plenary returned to earlier discussions of performance-as-research, Scotland, and Lyndsay’s text again: with video footage of this performance and an easy approach to what was by now a very tired audience, his paper brought together many of the ideas of the conference and provided a fascinating end to what was a very compelling and impressive conference.

Many thanks to Claire Jowitt and Ros King for the time and effort they put into organising such a terrific conference, and also to all the student helpers who also ensured the conference ran smoothly.